Saturday, November 26, 2011

2012 Top Prospect List: #4 Zack Cozart, ss

Zack Cozart
Height 6-0, Weight 195, B/T: R/R, DOB: 8/12/1985
2011 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #8

Zack Cozart is one of the top middle infield prospects in the system and one who is now in a position to capitalize on the dumpster fire that was Paul Janish's 2011 season. Fans were clamoring for Zack Cozart's arrival long before the Reds invited him to the party, but giving Janish an extended look was the wise, albeit painful, decision. Despite his detractors, Janish had enough positive attributes to make him an intriguing play, as he featured plus defensive skills at a premier defensive position, good plate discipline, and a line-drive generating swing. However, as the sample size increased, the likelihood of him being in the organization's future plans decreased, as Janish proved that the Reds simply couldn't rely on him to hold down a full-time gig. Second-tier prospects are rarely handed a starting job more than once and Janish doesn't have the type of upside that will easily enable him to play his way back into the organization's plans. Despite the outcome, the Reds, given their limited financial resources, need to try to capitalize on every asset, so taking the time to make an informed decision on Janish was one of the better decisions in a season short on good decisions. The end result was flawed, the process was not. As a result of the extended look, the Reds can now confidently turn the page on the Janish-era and give Cozart the bulk of the work at shortstop.   

2011 Season

As a result of the Janish experiment, Cozart logged 77 games and 350 plate appearances at triple-A. For the Bats, Cozart more than held his own, posting a .310/.357/.467 slash line with 7 homers, 9 steals, and a 51/23 K/BB ratio. His BABIP was .351, which isn't quite as unsustainable as it sounds when you factor in his robust 26% line drive rate. His performance coupled with the struggles of the MLB shortstop contingent earned him a promotion to the majors.

At the major league level, Cozart put up equally impressive overall stats, but his peripherals were uninspiring. Cozart hit .324/.324/.486 in 38 plate appearances across 11 games, managing to crank 2 homers with a 6/0 K/BB ratio. While that's an impressive debut, he'll have to improve his peripherals for it to be sustainable. His line-drive rate was an underwhelming 9.7% and his failure to draw a walk in 38 trips to the plate is mildly disconcerting. And, while we are undeniably dealing with meaningless sample sizes, his home (1.385 OPS)/road (.500 OPS) splits support the notion that he'll get a boost from that notorious righthanded hitter haven known as Great American Ballpark.

Overall, Cozart generates line drives at a good clip and has solid pull power, which should play well in the cozy confines of Great American Ballpark. At this point, Cozart seems to have established his baseline level of performance,which can be characterized as "good enough" across the board. He'll hit some homers out to left and slap some singles to right, but I wouldn't expect much power or well-driven balls to centerfield or rightfield. He's not a walk machine, but controls the strike zone well enough....for a shortstop. He makes contact at a good clip, so strikeouts won't be a significant problem. He has good instincts on the bases, but the stolen base likely won't be as big or effective a weapon in the majors as it was in the minors. Cozart will likely continue to profile out as more of a counting stat creation than an impressive rate stat player, which isn't a problem in light of his ability to hold down one of the premier defensive positions where "good enough" is really all that's required. 

Swing Mechanics

At the plate, Cozart uses a fairly simple, fundamentally sound set of swing mechanics. He starts with a slightly wider than shoulder width stance and a high back elbow. He has a quiet pre-pitch approach, the only noise being a small bat waggle to keep loose while waiting for the pitch. He stands very tall and remains tall throughout, an appearance amplified by the limited lower body action in the swing.

In order to effectuate his weight transfer, Cozart lifts his front foot up and takes a very small stride forward. He doesn't overextend in his stride, which is appropriate in light of his contact based hitting style. In actuality, Cozart is more of an upper body hitter, as he really doesn't rotate inward to cock the hips. When the stride doesn't cock the hips, then it becomes difficult to incorporate the lower body in the swing. There simply isn't much rotational energy in the swing, rather incorporating a more straight back and through action.   

As for the swing itself, it's fairly compact and short to the ball, but long and loose in the follow-through. The former emphasizes contact rate at the expense of power, while the latter enables full extension but may hinder bat control.On the follow-through, Cozart frequently lets go of the bat with the top hand.

While Cozart stays balanced throughout his swing, that speaks more to his limited lower body action and limited power production than an impressive fluidity and balance. I've written before about being impressed by the fluidity and balance in a hitter's swing, but that was on a hitter who fired the hips and generated a lot of rotational energy and swing velocity. It's very impressive to see a hitter maintain balance and fluidity by effectively controlling the various high energy forces of the swing. It's less impressive to see a hitter maintain balance by controlling rather limited forces in the swing.  

Here's a look at Cozart in action as he collects his first MLB hit:

Overall, Cozart has simple, but effective mechanics that should serve him well enough as a glove-first, up-the-middle player.

Defensive Ability

The old adage is that if you watch a team of players on the field in pregame warmups, you should be able to spot the shortstop in the first few minutes. It's something of an eyeball test that works because shortstop is the premier defensive position in baseball and only the best defensive players can hold it down. And, of course, Major League shortstops are the absolute cream of the crop, as the flawed are whittled down and down as they climb higher up the ladder. Zack Cozart passes the eyeball test, as he certainly looks the part.

Cozart looks the part because of his smooth actions in the field and soft hands when receiving the ball. What he does, he does very well. However, the questions on Cozart's defense revolve around his range and arm strength. But, you won't see either of those potential issues in the following clip:

Cozart should be a very solid defensive shortstop, but may ultimately lack the type of range necessary to be a true impact player with the leather. The sample sizes aren't large enough or the defensive metrics accurate enough to state it definitively, but to me it feels like Cozart's range is a tick below that of Paul Janish. It should, however, still be above average.As for Cozart's arm, it's definitely a tick or two below the howitzer that doubles as the right arm of Paul Janish, which means that Janish not only reached more balls due to his range advantage but was also able to convert those balls he reached into outs more effectively than Cozart due to his ability to get the ball to first base in less time.

Cozart frequently throws from a lower arm slot than most shortstops. It's common for second basemen to throw from a lower arm-slot because of the angle and distance of their throws, which allows them to throw to first base without coming up out of their crouch. It's a different story over on the other side of the bag, as shortstops frequently have to throw much more over the top because of the angle to first and a sidearm arm slot frequently results in throws that tail and run to the arm side.

Final Thoughts

In the final analysis, Cozart grades out fairly well and should, in light of Paul Janish's offensive implosion, hold down the shortstop position for a few years. However, his 2011 season was cut short by an injury to his left elbow caused by a collision at second base. The injury required Tommy John surgery, but should be fully healed by the time spring training rolls around. The elbow injury also limited his sample size and masked an impending regression, which may have created unrealistic expectations for Cozart's offensive abilities going forward.

In light of poor peripherals and an offseason spent rehabbing instead of working on his game makes Cozart a prime candidate for an underwhelming 2012 season. He'll have to prove he can make adjustments to be an effective offensive player, but regardless he'll always profile out as a glove-first player.

When I see Cozart play, he strikes me as being a poor man's Alex Gonzalez, the former Red and more recently the 2011 shortstop for the Braves. Like Gonzalez, Cozart seems unlikely to hit for high batting average or get on-base at an impressive rate, but Cozart likely has a tick less power and a tick less range at shortstop than A-Gon.

For now, all of this is enough to land Cozart at #4 on the list and on the hallowed Cincinnati shortstop ground for the foreseeable future.


  1. Lark,

    Thoughts on Latos? I'm sure you'll do a write-up...

  2. Hey Anon,

    Working on the write-up as we speak.


  3. You are the man. Hey, are you still on Twitter?


  4. Hey Anon,

    Thanks for the kind words. As for Twitter, still there (Lark_11) and tweeting when inspiration strikes.


  5. I desperately hope that Cozart can lead off next year. It's not out of the question: last year, in AAA, he hit .321 when no runners were on base (compared to .289 with runners on base), and a lead off hitter who gets < 200 SO's would be a nice addition for the Reds.